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Black Women’s Health Study Turns 20

BWHS-20-yr-certificateAnniversaries are special and as the years go by, they become more memorable. This year the Black Women’s Health Study (BWHS) turns 20. It is the topic of this post and my focus for Women’s History Month.

Twenty years ago, I received a letter informing me that the National Institute of Health had recently approved funds for the largest ever long-term study of African-American women. The letter went on to explain that the study would be carried out by an investigative team from the medical schools at Boston University and Howard University, with an advisory board knowledgeable about the health of African-American women.

Recipients of this historic invitation were informed that questionnaires were being mailed to subscribers of magazines, members of professional organizations and community groups, and friends and relatives. Participation was encouraged though optional, and would commence with the invitee completing the detailed questionnaire on her medical history, medication history, diet, cigarette smoking, and other health factors.

According to BWHS, some of the study participants came through the National Education Association. The federal government delivered questionnaires through their personnel offices to a sample of Black female employees. Essence Magazine also provided access to a sample of subscribers.

The 59,000 women that completed and returned the initial questionnaire are the BWHS. This sampling was more than enough to show that enough Black women were willing to provide useful and accurate health information to make a study feasible.

BWHS-InvitationLetter-Cropped4I’m one of those 59,000 women that returned the questionnaire. We form a very interesting and unique cohort group. Only those individuals that enrolled in 1995 can participate in this study. However, information about the participants, the study leaders, and some of the research is available to everyone.

A similar study of white females, begun in 1976 has resulted in over 100 scientific papers on their health. This study is better known as the Nurses’ Health Study and was initially led by Dr. Frank Speizer at Harvard University. The Nurses’ Health Study 2 was established in 1989. Both were designed as long-term epidemiological studies focusing on women’s health.

The nurses’ studies are among the largest investigations into risk factors for major chronic diseases in women ever conducted. The study is recruiting a new cohort of 100,000 female licensed practical nurses (LPNs) and registered nurses (RNs) (or those studying to become one) aged 20–46 called the Nurses’ Health Study 3. [Ref 2]

Fifty years ago and earlier, most of the research that was done in medicine focused on men – and perhaps for a number of reasons including social settings. Important findings from these studies targeted the symptoms that men experienced with a particular disease, and the most effective medication to treat them. Findings from these studies were used to treat women with varying results.

However, given advances in modern medicine, better data tracking and analysis, and perhaps more female doctors and researchers, it has been recognized that treatment of disease for women may not be homogeneous, as they noted differences in culture, education, and socialization. A Centers for Disease Control (CDC) 2011 report shows that the leading cause of death for all women in the U.S. is heart disease (22.9%) followed by cancer (21.8%). Until recently, most of what the medical community knew about heart disease was based on research on men.

Fast forward to today, and the medical community better understands that there are differences in the way that men and women become ill, and should be treated. No differently, researchers are discovering that some ethnic groups have a pre-disposition to certain diseases more so than others. Knowing the bio-markers to look for can lead to earlier diagnosis, better treatment and reduced mortality.

As a study participant for the past 20 years, it has been interesting to see how the study has evolved with technology and social media. I smiled and did a happy dance when the bi-annual questionnaire was first made available online. BWHS now has a FaceBook page. I applaud the study’s researchers, board members, and participants for staying involved and focused for the last 20 years.

As a reminder to my readers, African-American history is American history. The history of women in the U.S. is also American history. History happens every day and not just one month out of every year.


  1. The Black Women’s Health Study, http://www.bu.edu/bwhs/
  2. The Nurses’ Health Study, http://www.channing.harvard.edu/nhs/

About Vi Brown

Vi is principal and CEO of Prophecy Consulting Group, LLC, an Arizona firm that provides business and engineering services to private and public clients. Prior to establishing her consulting practice in 2001, Vi worked with Motorola, Maricopa County Government, Pacific Gas & Electric, CH2M Hill, and Procter & Gamble. As an adjunct faculty member, Vi teaches undergraduate calculus classes and graduate level environmental courses. She is also a professional speaker.

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